August 7, 2003

Careful what you wish for

"It's frustrating for everybody in here, and it should be frustrating for the people who go out there and pay for tickets and pay these outrageous prices at these concession stands. They deserve a winner. We have an opportunity to do that, and it's just unfortunate we didn't make a move. It's tough to sit here year after year and watch this team not do things to better themselves."

--- Jeff Nelson, then of the Mariners, commenting on Seattle not making a trade

Just a few days ago, Mariners reliever Jeff Nelson was quoted all over the place as being upset that his team did not make a major trade before the trade deadline. Apparently, Seattle's front office reads the sports page, because almost immediately after Nelson's comments, they went out and made a trade. Interestingly enough, the person they traded was Nelson.

The Mariners sent Nelson to the Yankees for Armando Benitez, in a what is simply a good, old-fashioned "challenge trade." This isn't trading a shortstop for an outfielder or a prospect for a veteran or a guy with a huge long-term contract for financial considerations. This is a trade of two elite right-handed relief pitchers who are both free agents after the season.

I don't know whether or not the Mariners traded Nelson because of his comments, although it would certainly seem as though what he said at least played a part in his departure. What I do know is that it is very funny to me that a guy would complain about his team not making a move and then get traded a couple days later.

As for the baseball aspect of the deal, it's an interesting one. I have always been a fan of Nelson and I am not so big on Benitez, but the fact is that they are both very good relief pitchers and they have been pretty similar pitchers this season.

              IP      ERA     SO/9     BB/9     HR/9     OAVG

Benitez 58.2 2.91 9.20 4.60 0.77 .225
Nelson 38.0 3.32 11.13 3.55 0.71 .246

Nelson has signficantly higher strikeout and walk rates, and their home run rates are about the same. Benitez has pitched about 20 more innings and has a lower ERA and opponent's batting average.

According to Baseball Prospectus' "Adjusted Runs Prevented" stat, which takes into account things like how a reliever does when he inherits runners from other pitchers, Benitez has been much better than Nelson.


Benitez 8.1
Nelson -8.5

Yes, that's right, despite seemingly similar numbers, Baseball Prospectus shows Benitez as being 16.6 runs better than Nelson so far this season. To me, that's pretty amazing, but not nearly as amazing as the idea that Nelson has been 8.5 runs worse than an "average" pitcher so far this year, despite great strikeout, walk and homer rates and a 3.32 ERA.

Apparently, masked by Nelson's nice ERA, is that when he has come into a game with runners on base, he has usually allowed them to score. In other words, if Arthur Rhodes gives up a single and a walk and the Mariners bring in Nelson to relieve him and Nelson gives up a 2-run double and then gets 3 straight outs, those 2 runs are charged to Rhodes, while Nelson's ERA actually improves.

I don't know enough about inherited runner performances from year to year to say whether or not that is a "skill" or simply a matter of season-to-season luck, but it does have a big impact that goes beyond a reliever's ERA.

With all that said, the Yankees are not in need of a "closer" come playoff time, they are in need of a guy who can come into the 7th or 8th inning and get a few outs. Specifically, with lefties Chris Hammond and Jesse Orosco already in the pen, they need a guy who can get a few right-handed hitters out, and I think I'd rather have Jeff Nelson filling that role for me in October than Armando Benitez.

Here are their numbers against righties for this season and for the previous 3 seasons combined:

2003                                      2000-2002

Benitez .215 .274 .290 Benitez .198 .257 .366
Nelson .226 .278 .310 Nelson .157 .292 .226

They've been essentially equally effective against righties this season, but Nelson has a significant edge during the previous 3 years.

From 2000-2002, Jeff Nelson held right-handed batters to a .157 batting average in 389 at bats, which is absolutely astonishing. In 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games, Nelson gave up just 17 hits in 143 at bats against right-handed hitters all season long, which works out a ridiculous .119 batting average.

Another important aspect of their pitching against righties is the rate in which they serve up long balls to them, which is a pretty important thing come October:


Benitez 26.8
Nelson 59.1

During the last 4 seasons combined, Nelson has given up 8 home runs to right-handed batters in 473 at bats. Meanwhile, Benitez has given up 20 homers to righties in 536 at bats. That is a huge difference and when the game is on the line and something hit over the fence can change the outcome, I want the guy giving up a homer every 60 at bats on the mound.

However, it should be noted that Benitez has cut way back on his homerific tendencies in the last 2 years. Check out his home run rate against right-handed hitters from 2000/2001, compared to 2002/2003:


2000/2001 18.0
2002/2003 76.7

To be honest, the part of me that would rather have Nelson on the mound against a tough right-handed batter is definitely thinking that way because of Benitez's tendency to give up tons of homers earlier in his career. He earned that reputation and it's very tough to shake it, as evidenced by the fact that most people, myself included, as wary of having him on the mound in a tough spot, despite him giving up just 3 homers in his last 230 at bats against right-handers.

His most recent performance should definitely be weighted more heavily than what he did several years ago, but that 18 at bats per homer rate from 2000/2001 is still in the back of my mind and I think I would always be afraid the homer-friendly Armando could come back at anytime.

Just to compare, while Benitez has given up a homer to righties every 76 at bats during the last 2 years, Nelson has given up one every 34.2 at bats. So really, Benitez has been far better at keeping the ball in the ballpark against righties during the last 2 years, but, like I said, his past is difficult to forget.

I know this is a cliche, but I think this is a good trade for both teams. It would seem as though the Mariners wanted to rid themselves of Nelson and they were able to get a very good right-handed reliever to replace him. It would also seem as though the Yankees didn't exactly fall in love with Benitez during his brief stay there, and they were able to flip him for a very good right-handed reliever to replace him.

For the roles they will likely play for the remainder of the regular season and (potentially) into the post-season, I would rather have Nelson than Benitez, although it is certainly very close and I could absolutely understand an argument either way.

I do have a little advice for Jeff Nelson though, which is that he should probably keep his mouth shut until the waiver trading deadline passes at the end of the month, just to make sure he doesn't wake up one morning and find out that he's been traded to Detroit or something. Trust me Jeff, you don't want that.

Speaking of relief pitchers (yeah, I know, that was a very lame attempt at a segue), Sumit and Sean over at "Sports Blotter" have a nice writeup on their choices for the National League Cy Young award, through two-thirds of the season. Sports Blotter is a very new blog on the scene and if there was a blogging award for "Best Debut Week," I think they would be in the running. The site has a very nice looking layout and they are churning out content, in both quality and quantity. Go check it out.

Thanks for stopping by this week, I hope you enjoyed yourself. If you missed any of the entries from earlier in the week, here they are:

Monday: What the hell is wrong with Freddy Garcia?

Tuesday: There's no place like home

Wednesday: Is the season two-thirds empty or one-third full? (Part One)

Thursday: Is the season two-thirds empty or one-third full? (Part Two)

This Week's Featured Links:

Monday: Peter Friberg's Musings

Tuesday: View From the 700 Level

Wednesday: Sports Blotter

Thursday: U.S.S. Mariner

Today's picks:

Montreal (Vazquez) -100 over Houston (Robertson)

Atlanta (Ortiz) -125 over St. Louis (Fassero)

Chicago (Estes) +120 over Los Angeles (Ashby)

Detroit (Maroth) +180 over Minnesota (Santana)

Total to date: + 1,385

W/L record: 198-200 (2-1 yesterday for +290, with one "no action" because the scheduled starter didn't pitch.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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